Biden signs bill aimed at averting rail strike, says nation avoided ‘catastrophe’

(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden on Friday signed legislation aimed at averting a nationwide rail strike while acknowledging that workers didn’t get everything they wanted.

Biden, speaking from the Roosevelt Room, said the bill “ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what coming out of that would have been an economic catastrophe in a very bad time in the calendar.”

The legislation, passed under pressure of a looming Dec. 9 deadline by the House and Senate this week, forces workers to accept a tentative agreement Biden himself helped broker between unions and rail companies back in September that offered union members a raise and increased health care benefits.

That agreement was later rejected by some worker unions because it didn’t include days of paid sick leave.

But on Thursday, the Senate voted 80-to-15 to impose the agreement while subsequently voting down a bill passed by the House that would have provided workers with seven days of paid sick leave.

Six Republicans voted to add sick leave but the measure ultimately fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass. Some of those lawmakers joined five Democratic caucus members, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in voting against the bill forcing workers to accept the agreement.

“Look, I know this bill doesn’t have paid sick leave these rail workers, and frankly every worker in America, deserves,” Biden, criticized for not doing more for workers despite calling himself a pro-union president, said Friday. “But that fight isn’t over. I didn’t commit we were going to stop this because we couldn’t get in this bill that we were going to stop fighting for it. I supported paid sick leave for a long time. I’m going to continue that fight to we succeed.”

Sanders, who led the effort to get sick leave passed, slammed railroad companies for not giving their workers these days despite bringing in massive profits. Unions asked for 15 sick days but the railroads settled on one personal day.

“At a time of record-breaking profits for the rail industry, it is disgraceful that railroad workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave,” he said in a statement after Thursday’s vote.

Rail companies celebrated the legislation’s passage, with Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies saying the Senate “acted with leadership and urgency with today’s vote to avert an economically devastating rail work stoppage.”

A strike would’ve cost $2 billion a day in lost economic output, according to the Association of American Railroads. Such a loss would’ve likely forced Americans to pay more out of pocket for goods, experts previously told ABC News.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also praised the “swift bipartisan action in Congress to prevent a devastating rail shutdown.”

“This deal will see well-deserved and long-overdue pay increases for rail workers,” Buttigieg said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to push for paid leave for all American workers.”

Biden was the one to ask Congress to step in to avoid the strike. He said he was hesitant to override workers but that larger economic concerns required the deal to be adopted.

“This was tough for me but it was the right thing to do at the moment to save jobs,” Biden said.

But workers weren’t pleased with the congressional action, with some accusing Biden of going against his pro-union statements.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, after Biden’s call for Congress to act, said the president was ignoring workers’ concerns.

SMART-TD, the second-largest rail union representing about 28,000 conductors, said in a statement after the Senate vote that it was “extremely disappointing” that so many voted against sick leave.

“The ask for sick leave was not out of preference, but rather out of necessity. No American worker should ever have to face the decision of going to work sick, fatigued or mentally unwell versus getting disciplined or being fired by their employer, yet that is exactly what is happening every single day on this nation’s largest freight railroads,” the union said.

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